The son of a village schoolteacher, Rudolf Bockelmann initially intended to become a teacher himself. To this end he studied philology and musicology at the University of Leipzig from 1911 before taking up vocal studies, also in Leipzig, with Oscar Lassner and Walter Soomer. He saw military action as a soldier in World War I and was wounded several times. After the war he was encouraged to pursue an operatic career by the conductor Arthur Nikisch and the baritone Karl Scheidemantel, making his operatic debut at Celle in 1920. Soon afterwards he joined the Leipzig Opera, making his debut as the Herald / Lohengrin in 1921.
Bockelmann stayed at Leipzig until 1926, after which he moved to the Hamburg Opera as the company’s leading heldenbariton. Here he took part in some notable first performances, including Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (1927) and Respighi’s La campana sommersa (1927) as well as Krenek’s Leben des Orest in Leipzig (1930). He made the first of many appearances at the Bayreuth Festival in 1928; his roles there included Kurwenal / Tristan und Isolde (1928, 1930), Gunther / Götterdämmerung (1928, 1930), the title role in Der fliegende Holländer (1939–1942) and above all Wotan in the Ring cycle (1931–1942). Indeed, during the inter-war years he was the only serious rival to Friedrich Schorr as Wotan. Between 1932 and 1944 Bockelmann was a prominent member of the Berlin State Opera. First performances in which he sang here included Pfitzner’s Das Herz (1931), Paul Graener’s Der Prinz von Homburg (1935) and Paul Klenau’s Rembrandt van Rijn (1937), in which he sang the title role.
Throughout the 1930s Bockelmann was also active on the international operatic stage. He sang regularly at Covent Garden (1929–1930, 1934–1938), notably as Wotan and Sachs / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He appeared in Chicago between 1930 and 1932 and made his French debut at the Paris Opera in 1934 as Sachs. Other major European opera centres where he performed included Amsterdam (1931, Sachs), Antwerp (1932), Barcelona, Brussels, Budapest (1935), Munich, Vienna (1932–1933) and Zürich.
Having joined the Nazi party in 1937, Bockelmann sat on several official bodies as well as participating in major state cultural events, such as the gala performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg held at the Nuremberg rally of 1938, with Furtwängler conducting the forces of the Vienna State Opera. His name featured on the 1944 list of those exempted from military service in the final stages of the war, because of especial talent. In the same year he was appointed as a teacher of singing at the Reichshochschule für Musik in Salzburg.
Following the end of the war, Bockelmann was based between 1946 and 1954 in Hamburg where he was active as a teacher. He also sang at the Hamburg Opera and with smaller opera companies, and with local radio stations; a recording of a 1949 broadcast from Hamburg of Der fliegende Holländer, in which he sang the title role, has survived. From 1955 onwards he taught singing in Dresden and gave his final performance (as Sachs) at Bielefeld in 1957. In addition to his Wagnerian roles, which also included Amfortas / Parsifal, his repertoire featured Amonasro / Aida, Borromeo / Palestrina, Herr Fluth / Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Orest / Elektra, Tonio / Pagliacci and Valentine / Faust (Gounod).
As his recordings attest, Bockelmann possessed a warm, rich tone with an unusually easy higher range: a voice which, although powerful in his later years, he consistently used with sensitivity and musicianship.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist